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A Heritage Preserved

July 2024
2min read

History by a Dam Site

The humble structure at the right—as the sign conveniently tells us—is indeed a dam, but it is no ordinary dam. It is a logging dam and may be the last of its kind left in the country, the crude reminder of an age in which the white pine forests of Wisconsin were systematically stripped of timber. It was built sometime between 1878 and 1883 at Round Lake on the South Fork of the Flambeau River in north-central Wisconsin, and its function was as simple as its construction.

Each winter, a small army of lumberjacks crawled into the forests around the lake with axes and two-handled saws, cut down the trees, then skidded the logs down to the lake shore and stacked them up to await the spring thaw. Come spring the logs were rolled into the water backed up behind the dam. The dam’s gates were then raised, and the logs shot through on a surge of water into a “booming area” where they were stored, sorted, then rafted down the Flambeau to the Chippewa River and down that to lumber mills on the Mississippi. A simple operation, but not a small one: in the peak year of 1884, the Chippewa River watershed produced no less than 741,837,000 board feet of timber, much of it sluiced through the gates of the Round Lake dam.

The forests, of course, did not .long survive such an onslaught, and 1909 saw the last logs shoot through the dam. In 1911 the land around the lake was purchased for a summer resort, which continued in operation until the mid1950's. Finally, in 1968, the land, the resort buildings, and the dam were bought by the United States Forest Service and added to the 11,000,000 acres of the agency’s Eastern Region- which brings us to the heart of this tale.

The Round Lake logging dam, unused for seventy-two years, is now a cultural resource, part of a little-known but nonetheless significant Forest Service program. Although the Antiquities Act of 1906 prohibited the unauthorized destruction or removal of archaeological or historic relics from federal lands, it was not until passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 that active preservation programs on federal lands were given substantial muscle and money. They were given further support in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and Executive Order 11593 of 1971, the latter ordering all federal land-management agencies to survey their holdings for sites that might be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and to “exercise caution … to assure that any Federally-owned property that might qualify for nomination is not inadvertently transferred, sold, demolished, or substantially altered.”

In the ten years following Executive Order 11593, the Service’s Eastern Region—whose fourteen national forests compose one of the largest chunks of federal land outside the West—has under its Cultural Resource Management Program located more than 11,000 historic and archaeological sites, evaluated more than 100 of them, and nominated 30 for inclusion in the National Register—all of this on a program budget that has risen from a paltry $60,000 in federal year 1977 to $800,000 in 1981.

Money well spent, for the sites uncovered so far demonstrate the extraordinary variety of cultures that have been at work in this stretch of country, from prehistoric burial mounds to ghost towns, relics of the fur trade to lighthouses, homesteads to Civilian Conservation Corps camps—and an odd little logging dam on the South Fork of the Flambeau River of Wisconsin.


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